02/09/2013 19:00 BST | Updated 02/11/2013 05:12 GMT

The Jury Is Out on E-Smoking

It's impossible not to notice the growing popularity of electronic cigarettes - but the jury is still out on their health credentials, with compulsory medical regulation not expected until 2016.

On face value, e-cigarettes look like a great alternative to smoking tobacco. In fact I've had many patients tell me they've been able to cut down or quit by using them as a source of nicotine replacement.

However, the e-cigarette debate was fuelled last week, with new research suggesting that some electronic pseudo cigarettes on the market could potentially be as harmful as tobacco. Sparking new health fears, the investigation by a consumer institute in France is believed to have detected carcinogenic molecules in the vapour emitted by some brands.

Calls for medical regulation

Early this year the British Medical Association advised that until regulation is tightened, e-cigarettes shouldn't be seen as more low risk than smoking. Since then it's been revealed that the UK Government wants the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to regulate them.

The MHRA is set to regulate all nicotine-containing products (NCPs) as medicines by 2016. There is also talk of a licensed e-cigarette being available next year, so we will wait to hear whether that goes ahead.

Such regulation will be helpful for GPs, as many of our patients are already using them, but at present we don't have conclusive evidence to advise on their suitability from a medical viewpoint.

Helping more people on the road to smoking cessation

Every year over 80,000 deaths in the UK can be attributed to smoking, which makes it the biggest single cause of avoidable death. It causes 90% of primary lung cancers, increases the risk of many other cancers and is also a major cause of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Heart Disease.

Smokers are believed to be twice as likely to have a heart attack as non-smokers and we also see higher prevalence of strokes, blood clots and angina. The non-life-threatening effects can be cause for concern too, particularly aging and sexual problems like erectile dysfunction.

Despite health worries, many struggle to quit. Smoking is an addiction, and like many conditions the best way to tackle it will vary from person to person.

The online doctor service I direct has helped thousands of patients through our free smoking cessation consultations. Many prefer to stop their nicotine intake completely. Some can achieve this through willpower alone, while others choose medical support - such as Champix, a prescription-only tablet, which blocks the desire for nicotine.

Like other nicotine-containing products, such as gums, patches and inhalers, e-cigarettes still contain the addictive ingredient - nicotine. But, if proved to be safe and properly regulated, I can see how e-smoking could help people cut down or quit too.

However, some would argue that the action of holding and inhaling the cigarette-esque device means that the habitual elements of smoking won't be broken, leaving those who use e-cigarettes open to temptation - although many people have found solace in their likeness to the 'real thing'.

Re-igniting the glamour of smoking

E-cigarettes have clearly become big business. The recent announcement of a football stadium sponsorship deal in South Wales hit the headlines, amid concerns that advertising and marketing could appeal to non-smokers and youngsters.

In bygone days, before the health implications were so widely recognised, smoking brought with it a certain level of glamour and sophistication - with iconic images, like Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's, now etched in history. Yet the realities of the habit are far less appealing. I'm sure that the public smoking bans have encouraged many to try and kick the habit - particularly when having to brave the elements on a rainy British evening!

I think it's fair to say that the charm of traditional cigarettes has faded, but are e-cigarettes re-igniting the allure of 'smoking'? Some might say they're re-normalising smoking, others would argue they're helping people quit. The debate smoulders on, but one thing that's certain is the need for greater quality control and effective medical regulation.